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Clerical Error: A True Story

Clerical Error: A True Story

4.0 2
by Robert Blair Kaiser

Twenty-nine years old, newly married, and fresh from the Society of Jesus, where he had spent ten years as a novice and scholastic, Bob Kaiser was picked for one of the most exciting jobs in journalism of his era: Time's reporter at the Second Vatican Council. In the words of Michael Novak: "No reporter knew more about the Council; had talked with more of


Twenty-nine years old, newly married, and fresh from the Society of Jesus, where he had spent ten years as a novice and scholastic, Bob Kaiser was picked for one of the most exciting jobs in journalism of his era: Time's reporter at the Second Vatican Council. In the words of Michael Novak: "No reporter knew more about the Council; had talked with more of the personalities, prominent or minor; had more sources of information to tap. Sunday evening dinner parties at his apartment became a rendezvous of stimulating and informed persons. In the English-speaking world, at least, perhaps no source was to have quite the catalytic effect as Time on opinion outside the Council and even to an extent within it." Much of inner story of the Council-its personalities, machinations, maneuverings between progressive forces and the old guard-was told in Bob Kaiser's bestseller of the early sixties Pope, Council, and World. This is a different story, one so raw and personal that it could only be told some forty years later in a very different church and by a much matured Bob Kaiser. The heart of the story is how Bob's wife was seduced by his friend, the Jesuit priest Malachy Martin, and how Martin ("a man who could make people laugh in seven languages)" persuaded Kaiser's other clerical friends (including notable bishops and prominent theologians) to send him to a sanitorium. The story is at once hilarious (Martin was one of the great clerical con men of all time) and sobering. The "clerical error"--the refusal to see what Martin was up to--was as much Kaiser's as that of his older clerical friends who defended their fellow priest simply because he was a member of the club. Their naivete and their blindness only mirrors the church's inability to deal realistically with any issue touched by sex: birth control, remarriage after divorce, priestly celibacy, clerical child abuse, or the ordination of women. Bob Kaiser did eventually grow up. He knows the official church has a long way to go.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Against the backdrop of the Catholic Church's historic Second Vatican Council, Kaiser, a former reporter for Time magazine, recounts the remarkable story of how his first marriage was destroyed by his wife's affair with the Jesuit priest Malachy Martin. Kaiser's life in the 1960s was inextricably caught up with the Council, and he relates as much about the assembly's inner workings as he does his personal crisis. To learn what was going on in the closed Council sessions, Kaiser cultivated its key players, primarily those promoting a liberal agenda, and invited them into his home, which became known as "a center of the Council's progressive wing." One of his frequent guests was Martin, who offered Kaiser help with research for his book on the Council and also managed to charm his wife, Mary. By the time Kaiser began to suspect a liaison between Martin and his wife, it was too far gone to stop. When he tried to expose it, he discovered that, at least by this account, Martin had conspired to have him admitted to a mental hospital. Kaiser, who spent 10 years with the Jesuits but left before he was ordained, paints himself as a victim of Martin, but also acknowledges his own failure to "grow up," an attitude he says was fostered by the church and the Jesuits. Although this memoir is based on a true story, it reads in many places like a novel, and a few elements strain credulity. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On the winding drive up the hill from Los Gatos, I couldn't see the Novitiate. Then, one more bend of the road, and there it was, looming up at me so suddenly I felt it was going to fall on me. Still in the car, I goggled at a painted statue that was too big for the courtyard, an effeminate figure—with a beard—holding his heart in his hand. My greeter spoke to me as I climbed out of the car, but I didn't hear him. I couldn't wait to flee the perpendency of that façade, and the scary statue. And I wondered what folly I'd embarked upon—minor me, a very young seventeen, hardly shaving yet, daring to enter the mighty Jesuit Order.

    The greeter was one of the legendary Callanan brothers from my own alma mater, Loyola High in Los Angeles, Jack Callanan. I was grateful when he led me off to a redwood-shaded walk and helped me calm down, ambling along with both hands stuck in the cincture of his cassock, arms casually akimbo. "That's the Juniors' side of the house," he said, nodding behind him. And then, waving at the nearer building, "This is where the Novices live."

    "A lot of trees over here," I said.

    "Olive trees," he said. "Weeping willow, elm, oak, maple, eucalyptus. This whole hillside below us—" He waved his arm to the north. "It's in prunes and plums. Countryside's all pink in the spring."

    I was soothed by the leafy greenness there, a cool contrast to the hot stare I had seen on the face of that building. I nodded with pleasure at the rows of rose bushes that stretchedon both sides of the walkway in front of me, framing the open gateway to the Novices' garden, where a small printed sign said CLOISTER. And I brightened when I saw Bob Jay, my teammate on the baseball team at Loyola High, who had preceded me here by a year. Well, I thought, maybe I'll just stay for dinner, then leave.

    Bob Jay was barely friendly, even seemed bemused at my presence here. Well, we were even. At this point, I was wondering, too. Did I really belong here? He told me to call him "Brother," and then he handed me over to my "guardian angel," a dark Irishman named McDonough, with a crewcut full of unruly cowlicks and a wide forehead. I was disappointed that Bob Jay wasn't going to be my guardian angel. I couldn't help feeling that I'd been given this, uh, Brother McDonough so he could whip me into shape, more effectively, perhaps, than my high school chums who had come to the Novitiate a year ahead of me.

    Brother McDonough took me inside to pick out a simple black cotton jacket, which I was to wear over my T-shirt at all times. Then he led me into the Novices' chapel. I didn't pray, too curious about the statues on either side of the altar, which were realistic, life-sized impressions of, I guessed, two Jesuit saints. One of them clutched a lily in one hand and a book in the other. The other figure was holding a cross in both hands and staring at it. Over the altar, I noted a large, illuminated oil portrait of another young man in a black cassock. A very young man, with girlish features, who was holding a lily to his breast with one hand and gazing upward, to the heavens. What was this with the lilies?

    When we left the chapel, I said, "Who's the guy in the painting over the altar?"


    "Yeah," I said, ignoring the implied reprimand. "The guy in the painting right over the middle of the altar?"

    Too deliberately, Brother McDonough said, "St. Stanislaus Kostka—was —no—guy."

    I later learned that Stanislaus Kostka, the patron saint of Jesuit Novices, was a nobleman's son who had died of pneumonia in 1568 while still a Novice. Back in his father's palace in Poland, he had had a habit of fainting whenever he heard someone utter a profanity. When, against his father's wishes, he entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Rome, his mother had sent a valet along with him. My angel was right: St. Stanislaus was not "a guy."

    Next day, August 15, vow day, young men who had completed two years of training in the Novitiate were to take their simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the Society of Jesus, and they did so in the main chapel of the Novitiate of the Sacred Heart, while a strong tenor voice from the choir loft sang with excruciating sweetness the words of a prayer written four hundred years before by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola himself.

Suscipe, Domine,
Suscipe, Domine,
Universam libertatem meam.
Accipe memoriam, intellectum,
atque voluntatem omnem.

    The Latin words in the little black book they'd given me, the Liber Devotionum, were printed in English on a facing page.

Receive, Lord,
Receive, Lord,
All my liberty.
Take my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will.

    All right, I said to myself, this is what I chose. I'd come because I'd admired the Jesuits, the priests and the scholastics at Loyola High. They'd taken an interest in me, instructed me in an ancient faith, given me a superb secondary education, and, once they'd told me that I would make a good Jesuit, I began to endow the men in the Order with all the qualities of King Arthur's knights, Mountbatten's commandos, and Hoover's F.B.I. Did they really think I could be one of them? Well, okay, I would join. I hadn't really thought too much about the cost of joining up—and making this kind of sacrifice. "All of my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will." All that, plus poverty, chastity, and obedience. This was going to be some gift. All of me? Is this what God wanted?

    The rest of the day was a celebration for all. The vow boys strolled around the grounds in twos and threes, wearing new cassocks and stiff, black three-cornered hats called birettas and then, in the afternoon, we had a baseball game, First Year versus Second Year. I was not a great natural athlete, but I'd played a lot of ball in school, and managed to letter on two league championship teams at Loyola. I was a better bunter than a hitter, I knew how to run the bases, and I had a wicked tongue, which I used to rattle opposing pitchers.

    I led off the game by drawing a walk, stole second, and scored from there on a groundout to deep short with a diving, dusty slide that avoided the catcher's tag after a throw that had me beat. That was all that was needed to make a newcomer bolder than he should have been. I started right in razzing the pitcher, a tall righthander named Richard Overstreet. When Bob Jay told me that Brother Overstreet was the golden-voiced tenor who had sung the beautiful "Suscipe" that morning, I had the special opening I needed to make him lose some concentration.

    "Hey, choirboy," I shouted. Instead of ignoring me, he whirled and pointed and said he'd soon take care of me. His reaction only encouraged me to continue references to his pretty voice and his pretty face. In the fifth inning, with a man on third and one out, I squared away to squeeze in the tying run against Brother Overstreet. He threw a high, hard one and came charging in, his blue eyes wide and eager. I missed the bunt and the runner was out. My fault. All of a sudden, the game was over. We didn't play nine-inning games. We played for two hours, then marched down the hill in twos or threes, and said the rosary together, out loud.

    At 5:30, the entire community, almost two hundred strong, gathered for a feast to celebrate the simple vows that had been taken that day. In the refectory, after the grace before meals, one of the novices read from a pulpit high above our heads in solemn tones. It was one of the daily chapters of an ongoing history of the Jesuits.

Fasti Breviores for August the fifteenth. In fifteen hundred and thirty four, in the little Church of Our Lady of Montmartre, Paris, St. Ignatius and his first nine companions ... took their first, or simple, vows at the Mass celebrated by Blessed Peter Faber, the only priest among them.... In fifteen hundred and forty nine, the landing at Cangoxima, Japan, of St. Francis Xavier, Father Cosmos de Torres and John Fernandez, after a stormy voyage.... In fifteen hundred and sixty eight, at Rome, the happy death of the angelic St. Stanislaus on Our Lady's feast. He twice received Holy Communion from the hands of an angel, and on one occasion Our Lady placed the Holy Child Jesus in his arms.... In seventeen hundred and ninety, at Lulworth Castle, England, Father John Carroll, of Maryland, was consecrated the first bishop of Baltimore....

    After that reading, the rector said Satis, "Enough," and gave the signal that we could talk. Then the waiters, wearing white aprons over their black cassocks, started to serve. It was the kind of dinner I had read about in books. It went on for almost three hours and the menu included shrimp cocktail, quail with wild rice, lime sherbet (to purge the taste of the quail), strip sirloin steaks and a glorious ice cream parfait. The waiters poured five successive wines from the Novitiate's own vast cellar of sherry, sauternes, burgundy, black muscat, and port, and then came around at the very end of the meal to pour shots of brandy or crème de menthe.

    Afterward, we were allowed to mingle with those who had taken their vows that day. Some of them plied us, incredibly enough after that feast, with boxes and boxes of chocolates. I took the occasion to talk to Brother Overstreet. I walked over to him with an outstretched hand and a smile. "No hard feelings?" I said.

    "Why should there be?" he said, blandly. "We won, you lost. In fact, you could have tied the game with a good bunt. And you didn't." He raised his eyebrows, and made a slight explosive sound with his lips that seemed to emphasize his point with a finality that no one could argue with. I certainly couldn't. He moved off to joke with one of the others.

    I turned to my guardian angel hovering nearby and said, "Say, Brother McDonough, just who is this, uh (I wanted to say snotty) Brother—Overstreet—anyway?"

    He laughed and said, "Oh, don't mind him."

    "Yeah," I said, "but who is he? Where does he come from?"

    He told me that Brother Overstreet had served four years in the U.S. Navy before he joined the California Province. "I think he's from Washington, D.C. His uncle is the president of Georgetown."

    "I'm not impressed by that," I lied, "but if he can make it here, so can I." Now I didn't want to turn around and go home at all.

Excerpted from CLERICAL ERROR by Robert Blair Kaiser. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Blair Kaiser. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Robert Blair Kaiser is the author of 8 books. His articles have appeared in a score of magazines from Life to Look to Rolling Stone, Saturday Review, Ladies Home Journal, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He currently writes for Newsweek from Rome, where he also pens his periodical e-mail letters on the Vatican, which are enjoyed by thousands of persons around the world.

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Clerical Error: A True Story 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Here is a sleeper, Robert Blair Kaiser's 'Clerical Error, ' a memoir about the Second Vatican Council that is better than most novels. (I would make a great movie.) Kaiser is a Jesuit scholastic for ten years. He leaves the Order, Time magazine grabs him and sends him to Rome. He covers the Council in prize-winning fashion, entertaining most of the Council's liberal wing during Sunday night buffet suppers that go on past midnight. He even has his own Council Father-in-Residence who hands him the conciliar documents (marked sub secreto) every afternoon. Kaiser's apartment becomes the El Dorado of think tanks, and Kaiser's weekly accounts help the world understand the revolutionary nature of the Council as seen through the eyes of the surprising conciliar majority engaged in writing a charter to give the Church back to the people. You meet many of the Council's movers and shakers at the Kaiser Sunday nights: Council Fathers like Denis Hurley of Durban, South Africa, Mark McGrath of Panama, and John Wright of Pittsburgh, theologians like Bernard Häring, Jean Danielou, Piet Fransen, Gregory Baum, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, top European journalists like Henri Fesquet of Le Monde and Tom Burns of the Tablet, and U.S. journalists like John Cogley, then of Commonweal, and Michael Novak (then on assignment for Harper's), practically the whole editorial staff of America magazine, and whole slew of Jesuits from around the world who know this is where the action is. Official Protestant and Jewish observers at the Councill make their weekly Sunday night appearances. After all these years, Gregory Baum says he still has 'the taste of the meat and the conversation in his mouth.' The sight and the sounds of these players elicit strong memories from a super charged time when hopes were strongest that Christ would be put back into Christendom. What a time this was. And Kaiser makes it all come alive. While Kaiser is as involved (some might say over-involved) in reporting Vatican Hill as his Washington colleagues were reporting Capitol Hill, he fails to notice that one of his better sources is moving in on his wife. The source is Malachy Fitzmaurice Martin, Irish Jesuit biblical scholar, sociopath, charlatan, consummate liar, seducer of married women and full service con artist who has one objective: his own pleasure, and a perverse kind of revenge directed at Kaiser, the first one in conciliar Rome to unmask Martin as a mythomaniac. Few believe Kaiser. He's a layman. The clerics circle the wagons around Martin, even the great John Courtney Murray, who becomes Martin's unwitting confederate. Kaiser isn't even sure he believes himself, and, under Murray's urging that he check out his own 'paranoia,' signs himself in at Hartford's Institute of Living, while Martin moves into the Kaiser apartment in Rome -- with Mrs. Kaiser. In fact, it was Murray himself who took Kaiser to Hartford in the borrowed, chauffeured limousine of a wealthy New York dowager. No wonder Murray found it impossible to admit his own error. When the truth about Martin finally emerged, Murray was still telling Kaiser he needed psychotherapy. Laymen had an easier time unmasking Martin. See, for example, an article by Joseph Roddy in Look magazine, January 25, 1966, where Roddy references Martin¿s invasion of Kaiser's apartment and Kaiser's bedroom, though he names Martin under some of Martin's favorite aliases. 'At the time, Pushkin-Serafian-Cartus was living in the Biblical Institute, where he had been known well since his ordination in 1954, though he will be known here as Timothy Fitzharris O'Boyle, S.J. For the journalists, the young priest's inside tips and tactical leaks checked out so well that he could not resist gilding them every now and then with a flourish of creative writing. And an imprecision or two could even be charged off to exhaustion in his case. He was known to be working on a b
JohnTD More than 1 year ago
Robert Blair Kaiser (1931-2015) tells an honest story. He -- and his marriage -- became the victims of Malachy Martin.